SWRD Bandaranaike’s Flirtation With Federalism.


Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike known as S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike was the fourth Prime Minister of Independent Sri Lanka known then as Ceylon. SWRD who was born on 8 January 1899 died due to assassination on 26 September 1959. This year therefore marks the 112th anniversary of his birth and 62nd anniversary of his death.

Buddha Jayanthi Celebrations – 1956 – pic: SWRD Bandaranaike Museum

Bandaranaike is widely hailed as the man who ushered in the age of the common man through the electoral revolution of 1956. He is also criticised as the man who widened the ethnic divide in the country by enthroning Sinhala as the sole Official Language of the country.

Man on a Federal Mission

This column however focuses – with the aid of earlier writings – on a less-known interesting aspect of the multi-faceted Bandaranaike. He was the first person of eminence who proposed federalism in Ceylon/Sri Lanka during colonial rule. He also envisaged the setting up of Provincial Councils.

SWRD was enlightened enough to feel the necessity for some form of decentralisation and/or devolution when the Ceylonese nation began progressing towards self-government under British rule. Both decentralisation and devolution were used interchangeably in those days. Although Bandaranaike did espouse federalism at one point, it is a fact that in later years, he modified or amended it to greater decentralisation.

Young Bandaranaike returned home in 1925 after pursuing a brilliant academic career at Christ Church College, Oxford. Like many young idealists from countries under colonial bondage, SWRD too came back with a zealous sense of mission to serve his country and people.

While being a member of the Ceylon National Congress, Bandaranaike also founded a political party known as the ‘Progressive National Party’ to achieve the goal of political self-government. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike became the Leader of the Progressive National Party while C. Ponnambalam of the Jaffna Youth Congress was the Party Secretary.

The Oxford-returned SWRD was of the view then that Ceylon should become a federation. The Progressive National Party in its Constitution detailed an outline of the federal system Bandaranaike had in mind. While noting that the three main groups in the country were the low-country Sinhalese, up-country Sinhalese and the Tamils, the party Constitution wanted the federal system to be based on the nine provinces with each having complete autonomy. There was to be a bi-caramel legislature consisting of a “House of Commons” and “House of Senators”.

Bandaranaike’s proposal for a federal Constitution was supported by all members of the Progressive National Party except one. The solitary dissident was the scholar James T. Rutnam who was Bandaranaike’s close friend and associate. Incidentally, James Rutnam was the father of well-known filmmaker Chandran Rutnam

His Vision for Federalism

S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike wrote a series of six articles for the ‘Ceylon Morning Leader’ articulating his vision for federalism. The preliminary article appeared on 19 May 1926. The following excerpt consists of the introductory paragraphs from the preliminary article:

“At a time when the desire for self-government appears to be growing ever stronger, and successive instalments of ‘reforms’ seem to bring that goal almost within sight, two problems of vital importance arise, which require careful and earnest thought. The first is the question of Ceylon’s external status, that is, what is her position as a nation in relation to other nations.

“The second is her internal status, the adoption of a form of government which would meet the just requirements of the different sections of her inhabitants. No effort has yet been made seriously to consider these problems, nor indeed in some quarters is it realised that the problem exists at all! There is the usual vague thinking, there are the usual generalisations, to which politicians are only too liable, the catch-words are the bane of politicians all over the world… in Ceylon we find in constant use, such phrases as ‘co-operation,’ ‘self-government,’ ‘cabinet-government,’ without any clear understanding of either what they really involve or whether and to what extent, they are applicable to our own particular difficulties. The writer believes the true solution to the problem mentioned is contained in the federal system and these articles are intended as a general introduction to the subject.”

S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike’s advocacy of federalism did not create a major political splash at that time; it only caused ripples. The federal idea did not evoke a communal or Sinhala backlash then. The strongest critique was not from a Sinhalese but from a Tamil.

Educationist and scholar James T. Rutnam wrote articles in ‘Ceylon Morning Leader’ arguing against the views of his friend S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike. James Rutnam was for a unitary Constitution. He opposed a federal Constitution saying it would cause disunity among the people. It is however noteworthy that James Rutnam revised his opinion of 1926 and advocated federalism thirty years later, after 1956.

Federalism when suggested by SWRD in 1926 was opposed by the Jaffna Students’ Congress (later renamed as the Jaffna Youth Congress) also. Bandaranaike was invited by the Jaffna Congress to deliver a lecture to a large audience in Jaffna. SWRD travelled up to Jaffna and spoke on federalism at a meeting held on 26 July 1926.

The well-attended meeting was presided over by Dr. Issac Thambyayah. Young Bandaranaike spoke eloquently on the topic ‘Federation as the only solution to our political problems’. SWRD argued that regional autonomy was the ideal way to manage communal differences. The audience was neither impressed nor enamoured by the federalism pitch. Bandaranaike was subjected to a barrage of questions challenging federalism as a valid form of government for the island. He answered with great erudition but there were few takers for federalism among Tamils in Jaffna then.

Nevertheless, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike stood firm saying, “A thousand and one objections could be raised against the system, but when the objections are dissipated, I am convinced that some form of federal government will be the only solution.”

Transformation of Political Vision

With the advent in 1931 of the Donoughmore Constitution resulting in the introduction of universal franchise and territorial representation, Bandaranaike’s political vision underwent a transformation. He now felt that the largest community, the Sinhalese, had to be ‘united’ to bring about national unity. Hence, along with some like-minded souls, Bandaranaike formed the ‘Sinhala Maha Sabha’ in 1936.

Bandaranaike also contested the Veyangoda constituency at the State Council elections of 1931 and 1936. In both instances, he was elected unopposed. The ‘pan-Sinhala’ board of ministers set up in 1936 saw Bandaranaike become Local Government Minister.

Subsequently, SWRD moved away from espousing federalism to encouraging decentralisation. It must be noted that there was really no antipathy towards federalism then. It was more apathy and dis-interest. SWRD himself had great political ambition and sought to build up his base through the Sinhala Maha Sabha and through enhancing the Local Government system. So he wanted to revamp the Local Government system and provide greater autonomy through decentralisation.

SWRD began envisaging the province as the unit of greater local authority. He wanted to set up Provincial Councils. The Local Government Ministry’s Executive Committee released a report advocating more powers to these proposed councils. In 1940, R.S.S. Gunawardena introduced a motion in the State Council proposing the setting up of Provincial Councils. The State Council approved it but for some inexplicable reason SWRD did not proceed further and present a Bill in the State Council during its tenure.

Bandaranaike later joined the United National Party (UNP) with his Sinhala Maha Sabha. He was appointed the Local Government Minister in Independent Ceylon’s first Cabinet under D.S. Senanayake. It is said that SWRD tried to revive his Provincial Council formulation again as a means to bring government closer to the people. But his Cabinet colleagues enjoying power as full-fledged ministers were reluctant to dilute or reduce their newly-gained authority. So SWRD could not go through with his plans.

This was indeed a great pity because the envisaged Provincial Councils could have been set up without much problem then as the ethnic dimension was not prevalent then as it was later. In 1951, Bandaranaike crossed over to the opposition and founded the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).

Watershed in Ceylon Politics

There was now a new ‘federal’ phenomenon on the political horizon. The main Tamil party – the All-Ceylon Tamil Congress – had split and the splinter group had formed a new party espousing federalism. G.G. Ponnambalam was Leader of the Tamil Congress then. His Deputy was S.J.V. Chelvanayagam. GG, as he was generally known, was seen as a pragmatic politician by his supporters. After full independence dawned, Ponnambalam opted to join the D.S. Senanayake Cabinet and became Industries and Fisheries Minister.

But some of his deputies like Chelvanayagam, C. Vanniyasingham, E.M.V. Naganathan and V. Navaratnam rebelled against Ponnambalam.

They broke away and formed a new party. It was called the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) in Tamil. Its English translation should have been Ceylon Tamil State Party but instead it was called Federal Party (FP). The new party wanted an autonomous Tamil State comprising the Tamil-dominated Northern and the Tamil-majority Eastern Provinces within a united Ceylon.

The birth of ITAK was a watershed in Ceylon politics as it was the first party to articulate the federal idea as its main ideology and goal after Independence. Unlike SWRD who emphasised regional autonomy for good governance, the FP wanted federalism to protect Tamil interests and achieve ethnic harmony. Unfortunately, federalism as promoted by the ITAK was embroiled in controversy. It was misrepresented, misunderstood and therefore much maligned and much hated.

Communal Cry and ‘Sinhala Only’

The 1952–’56 years saw a sea change in Sinhala and Tamil politics. The Bandaranaike-led SLFP began raising the communal cry and advocating Sinhala as the sole Official Language. This in turn created insecurity in Tamil areas. The ITAK vowed to resist Sinhala imposition and began mobilising support.

The historic 1956 General Elections resulted in a deep polarisation between the Sinhala and Tamil communities. While the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) joint front headed by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike swept the polls in the south, the Federal Party led by S.J.V. Chelvanayagam won six out of nine seats in the north and four out of seven in the east.

One of the first acts by the new government was the enshrining of Sinhala as the sole Official Language of the country. On 5 June 1956, Tamil Satyagrahis peacefully protesting at Galle Face were beaten up by thugs as the Police watched and did nothing. Anti-Tamil violence erupted in several parts of the country. On 15 June, Sinhala was made the sole Official Language by a vote of 56 to 29. With increasing communal tension, the country seemed to be heading for a bloodbath.

SWRD who was arguably the most intellectual of all Sri Lanka’s prime ministers realised that the situation had to be checked and reversed. He understood that the Tamils had genuine grievances that had to be redressed. Bandaranaike, the man who proposed federalism for Sri Lanka in 1926, knew that effective power sharing was the only solution. Instead of federalism, he now wanted extensive decentralisation through the setting up of Regional Councils.

It is widely believed that the Regional Councils scheme was introduced by Bandaranaike as a result of the B-C pact. Actually, a draft Bill for Regional Councils was published on 17 May 1957. The B-C pact came later in July. After presenting the Regional Councils Bill, SWRD wanted to arrive at an understanding with the Tamil leaders and modify it further.

Talking to ITAK/FP

A meeting between Premier S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and ITAK/FP leader Samuel James Veluppillai Chelvanayagam was mooted. It was done on the personal initiative of Prime Minister Bandaranaike himself. The first meeting was held on 22 June 1957 at the Premier’s residence in Horagolla.

SJV Chelvanayagam

ITAK/FP presented its case for a federal state. The FP delegation led by Chelvanayagam pointed out that SWRD’s own viewpoint in the ’20s that federalism was the ideal solution had been a source of inspiration for the party in demanding federalism. The FP approach was to encourage Bandaranaike to view matters through a federal prism by acknowledging his historic role of being the pioneering proponent of federalism in the country.

But this was more than 30 years ago. The situation had changed. The negative, vitriolic propaganda against federalism had distorted the meaning of the concept in general Sinhala perception. Although the intellectual giant Bandaranaike knew what federalism was all about, he was not prepared to accept or associate with federalism now.

So SWRD who hd formerly “flirted” with federalism, replied by saying that though he espoused federalism then, he had subsequently changed his mind. Besides, he had no mandate for introducing federalism. “Could not the FP think of an alternative solution short of federalism that would redress Tamil grievances and address aspirations?” Bndranaike queried.

The ITAK/FP understood the Prime Minister’s situation and agreed not to press for a federal solution. Both parties agreed to seek ways and means of power sharing within the parameters set out by the Choksy Commission report on decentralisation and the draft Bill on Regional Councils. The PM then suggested that the FP should come up with alternative proposals envisaging ‘massive decentralisation’ but not ‘federal autonomy.’ The ITAK/FP agreed and departed.

Consequently the ITAK came up with a document outlining its proposals. Bandaranaike objected to some clauses and suggested changes. He suggested that the scheme be whittled down in point form to emphasise administrative decentralisation. Thereafter a series of Government-FP discussions were held where each point was delved into at length and approved with amendments when necessary. Finance Minister Stanley de Zoysa led the Government delegation at these meetings. Finally a draft agreement was formulated.

Reaching an Agreement

The conclusive meeting took place on 25 July 1957 at the Prime Minister’s Office in the old Senate building. Several Cabinet ministers were in attendance. Many FP leaders also participated. It began at 7 p.m. On the unit issue, the FP consented to the Premier’s stance that the north be one council and the east be divided into two or more councils. The councils could merge if desired even cutting across provincial boundaries. Existing boundaries could be re-demarcated if necessary.

When it came to powers of the council, several ministers led by Philip Gunewardena refused to delegate their powers. The FP members retired to another room while Cabinet ministers sorted out the issue. Subsequently the ‘line’ ministers agreed to devolve their powers. At 2 a.m. on 26 July, ITAK Secretary and former Kayts MP V. Navaratnam read out in point form the agreement reached. Both sides formally agreed. The good news announced to the media at 2:30 a.m. “We have reached an agreement,” stated Stanley de Zoysa.

PRIME MINISTER S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike (left) and S.J.V. Chelvanayagam, leader of the Thamil Arasu Katchi, shake hands after signing what came to be known as the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagam Pact on July 26, 1957-Pic via: The Hindu

The agreement signed by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and S.J.V. Chelvanayagam in 1957 was a significant event in the political history of post-independence Sri Lanka. The Prime Minister of the day and the Leader of the biggest Tamil political party had come to an understanding which if implemented may have helped contain the ethnic conflict at its nascent stages.

Pact Aborted Amid Communal Frenzy

The agreement known generally as the “Banda-Chelva Pact” was never allowed to work because of political opposition in the south. The opposition came from hardliners among the Sinhala Buddhist clergy and laity as well as hawkish elements among both the Government and Opposition.

The United National Party (UNP) was vehemently opposed to the B-C pact, calling it a sell-out of the Sinhalese. The UNP had only eight seats in Parliament being buried in the landslide victory of SWRD in 1956. With Sir John Kotelawela reduced to a mere figurehead and Dudley Senanayake becoming inactive it was Junius Richard Jayewardene’s task to revive the UNP’s flagging fortunes. Just as SWRD rode to power by playing the communal card, JR too resorted to communalist politics to discredit the new regime. Jayewardene seized on the B-C pact as a vulnerable target and began whipping up communal frenzy against it.

As a result, 200 Buddhist priests and 300 others squatted outside Bandaranaike’s house on 9 April 1958 demanding the pact be revoked. Finally, SWRD caved in and repudiated the pact unilaterally, tearing up a copy to symbolise it.

SWRD Bandaranaike

Both Bandaranaike and Chelvanayagam had entered into the agreement to avoid an ethnic conflagration. Yet, a month after the B-C pact was aborted, ethnic violence erupted on a large-scale. The ethnic crisis deteriorated into open war and the country kept bleeding for many decades. In 1959, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike himself was assassinated by a Buddhist monk, Talduwe Somarama Thera.

Pioneering Proponent of Federalism

This then is the story of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike who started out as the pioneering proponent of federalism and later transformed into an advocate of decentralisation in the form of Provincial and Regional Councils. This transition from propounding federalism to espousing decentralisation is strikingly illustrated by the essence and nature of the Regional Councils envisaged by the pact Bandaranaike signed with Chelvanayagam.

The political evolution and transformation of Bandaranaike is by itself a fascinating study. Despite the changes in his political outlook, an underlying thread remaining constant in Bandaranaike political thinking was that some form of decentralised power sharing was imperative for the essential well-being of this resplendent island and her people. This is a salient factor that cannot be dismissed, ignored, overlooked or glossed over in any Constitution making or Constitutional reform exercise.

DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at dbsjeyaraj@yahoo.com

This Article was written for the “political pulse”Column in the “Daily Financial Times”of September 29th 2021. It can be ccessed here.